DAEGU - On an afternoon in Daegu, families were joined by two rather bizarre observers; two Englishmen in suits with huge comedy animal heads, one fashioned as a tiger and the other a bear.
They silently followed around a tour group at the Daegu Safety Theme Park and observe the images of modern Korea and all its dangers, trying to make sense of the place they have found themselves in.
Along the tour, Tiger and Bear clumsily struggled to find their way out of a burning subway train, climb a mountain, take cover during an earthquake and stop their house from burning down - all greatly hindered by the oversized heads they were wearing.
Small children gazed with absolute awe, mothers giggled to fathers and the park assistants simply laughed until it hurts.
The other guests at the park probably had more than a few questions to ask about what they were doing, and that is exactly what Tiger and Bear want.
At first glance there may be the assumption that this is just a case of two foreigners larking around in costumes.
But this performance and others like it actually go a lot deeper.
The two Englishmen have taken on the roles of Tiger and Bear, important characters in Korea`s mythology, as part of a performance art project to investigate how Korea maintains its traditions while undergoing heavy development. Yet the duo is likewise performing a juggling act between keeping with their original intent of interacting with everyday people and dealing with their growing fame.
The Daegu Safety Theme Park sits beneath the Palgon Mountain, home of the famous Gat Bawi Buddhist statue. It was built to "enhance citizen awareness of safety and people`s capacity to cope with disasters," in the wake of the Daegu`s subway fire of Feb. 18, 2003, as a way to make the city`s citizens aware of the dangers that face everyday people in Korea`s rapidly modernizing urban centers.
An average day at the park consists of a guided tour through different disaster zones, detailing past and potential future disasters, such as subway fires, landslides and earthquakes, complete with video segments, advice on how to deal with these situations and simulations of each disaster.
Typically, the attendees of the theme park are groups of school children or families with small children, who either want to instill a sense of danger awareness in their offspring, or just make a day of it at Mount Palgong before taking the cable car up to the top of the mountain.
The two men behind Tiger and Bear are James Topple (a former market trader in Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein) and Colin Riddle (a professional magician who traveled around the United Kingdom with a family-operated circus). After arriving in Korea, the pair decided they wanted to investigate how Korea was adapting to the numerous economic and social changes that have taken place over the past 20 years. Since both have an interest in mythology, they decided to choose the Gojoseon legend of Tiger and Bear as the basis for an art project to see how old traditions fit in the Korea of the 21st century.
The legend itself tells of the creation of Dangun, forefather of the Korean people, in relation to two creatures, a tiger and a bear, who longed to become human.
Hwanung, son of the god Hwanin, promised to grant their wish if they were to remain in a cave for 100 days, with only 20 cloves of garlic and a handful of mugwort to stave off their hunger.
The tiger ran away before the 100 days was up, but the bear remained patient and on the 21st day turned into a beautiful woman. Not long after her transformation, she began to crave a child, but no one was willing to wed her. In her sadness she sat beneath a holy tree and prayed for a child everyday. Hwanung eloped with her, and through him she gave birth to a son, Dangun, who established the ancient Gojoseon kingdom.
In some ways the project, which Riddle maintains is a breed of performance art or live theater, is a way to deal with feelings of dislocation and culture shock that almost all new arrivals in Korea have to face. Part of the reason they choose tiger and bear as the subject matter is that, indeed, if these two characters were to visit Korea today they would almost certainly not recognize it, what with both mass industrialization and modernization, with everything from language to religion having changed.
Tiger and Bear therefore don`t want to hide from Korean people, but rather meet them and see what they make of their costumes: Do they recognize the characters they have chosen? How do they feel about their depiction? What do think about foreigners in Korea? What do these interactions tell us about how modern-day Korea feels about its past?
Obviously this relies on heavy interaction and a key part of the project relates to the heads they wear, being purposely open-faced so as to not hide the people within them or look scary, instead possessing an almost cartoonish quality. Maybe this is why people have indeed been so keen to meet Tiger and Bear and get close to them
An unintended side-effect is that the duo is now making more of a mark on the cultural landscape of Korea, especially in terms of popular media.
During a break at the theme park Topple explained some of their exploits. "We`ve done exhibitions at the Seoul Museum of Art, Daegu`s Dongseongo festival, and headlined the Jecheon International Music and Film Festival with Go Go Star. We`ve been pretty busy and September is going to even more hectic for us, with an exclusive interview in the September edition of Daegu Pockets and a full-page write-up in Eloquence magazine."
"In the near future, Korea will be seeing a lot more of us. I can`t say too much, but live performances, TV spots and even movie cameos could all be on the cards," Riddle added.
Yet despite the fact that fame and fortune appear set to whisk Tiger and Bear off to greater things (or maybe just 15 minutes of fame on EBS) they are nevertheless content to continue getting out there and meeting regular Koreans - for the time being at least.
"Living it up at the after-show parties at the hotels and clubs is great and we`re really excited about the future, but at the end of the day it`s about the normal people. We came here to meet Korean people and we`ll never become too big to do that," said Topple.
"You`ve got to make time for those around you and I`m sure for whatever reason the people we met today at the safety theme park will remember this day for quite a while."
The families on the tour with Tiger and Bear that day will almost certainly remember the encounter, although probably not so much because of Tiger and Bear as people but because of their bizarre appearance.
Nevertheless another thing that could linger may be the question as to why two Westerners were acting out the contents of a Korean legend and what place such traditions and myths have in today`s Korea.
Dann Gaymer is an Expat Living contributor based in Daegu. He also writes for Daegu Pockets. More of his writings can be seen at http://danngaymer.blogspot.com - Ed.
By Dann Gaymer